In his new memoir, Fear is a Choice, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner recalls leaving the field after warm-ups before one particular game when he heard a voice say: “That’s James Conner. You’ve got something in common with him.”
“I couldn’t just walk on by after hearing that,” he relates in the book. “‘What do we have in common?’” I asked as I turned around and smiled at the girl.”
The girl, named Chelsea, said: “I have cancer.”
“You’ve got this,” Conner told her, learning that Chelsea had a brain tumor and would soon be beginning radiation therapy.
When Conner pointed to the adoring crowd during the game that day, it was a gesture meant for Chelsea. And these days, Conner is playing for a lot more people like her, including other kids who are facing life-altering or life-threatening medical conditions.
How James Conner Came to Recognize God’s Plan for Him
At first Conner didn’t fully appreciate the role he could play in people’s lives as a high-profile cancer survivor, having overcome Hodgkin’s lymphoma en route to resuming his own football career.
As he recently related in an interview with Heavy.com: “I didn’t want to have any sympathy because I was a cancer survivor or didn’t want to be associated with ‘cancer survivor,’ but that was just because I wanted to get to the NFL and have people recognize me for my play.”
But after meeting children like Andrew O’Neil—a sports-loving five-year-old with neuroblastoma; and Roman Pfister, who endured three open-heart surgeries before the age of six; and a teenaged wrestler named Ian Malesiewski, who was paralyzed from the chest down during a high-school Greco-Roman wrestling match—Conner came to recognize that he had an opportunity to impact countless lives in meaningful ways.
“Honestly being a survivor touches so many more people than being a football player,” Conner told Heavy.com. “That helps people in a much bigger way than just running the football on the field. It took me some growing and some maturing to learn that.”
But now he has fully embraced his role as a cancer survivor.
Or as he puts it in Fear is a Choice: “I want to play for those who can’t—for those people who may not ever be able to return to the field, the mat, or the pool because of their struggles…. These individuals are no less important than I am, but because I’m an NFL player, I get all the press and attention. With the platform I’ve been given, it’s my duty to speak up for those who are still battling and those who have lost the battle.”
That includes O’Neil, who passed away just four days after Conner, fighting back tears, highlighted the young boy’s struggle while accepting the 2016 Disney Spirit Award, which is presented each year to the most inspirational college football player, coach or team.
Moreover, Conner now recognizes that cancer was part of God’s plan. As he writes in Fear is a Choice: “I had dreamed of playing in the NFL my whole life—but I wasn’t dreaming big enough. God had so much more in store for me than becoming just a professional football player.”
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‘Cheering on people who are in the middle of their own challenges’
In particular, Conner wants to continue helping and inspiring people who are in the midst of their own struggles.
For a time, Conner’s football career—not to mention his life—was threatened by his cancer. But while undergoing his own chemotherapy treatments, Conner received equal parts advice and inspiration from Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who himself had overcome Hodgkin’s lymphoma and resumed his All-Pro NFL career.
Now that Conner is a star NFL player—with a Pro Bowl resume of his own as starting running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers—he is focusing on “cheering on the people who are still in the middle of their own challenges,” as he puts it in Fear is a Choice.
That includes partnering with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for visits to Hillman Cancer Center facilities in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.
“It’s just a beautiful thing for me to be able to go back there and provide some support and inspiration,” Conner told Heavy.com. “I was sitting in those chairs getting the same [chemotherapy] medicine that those people are getting. I can relate firsthand so it means a lot.”
Meanwhile, Conner is also planning to continue his practice of hosting five cancer patients or survivors at each Pittsburgh Steelers home game, as he did beginning last season, covering travel costs and game tickets.
In the process he’s “grow[ing] the network of people I carry with me every time I take the field,” he says in Fear is a Choice,” noting that it’s “a way to build a family of support and encouragement for people who are going through one of the toughest challenges they will ever have to face. It’s a way of bringing together a community where we all need each other.”
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